Daba, who’s young and cheerful, has an eye for the ladies. His attention wanders from the road to the fields where such well-dressed, winsome creatures are working. Thankfully, the chicken kicks up a racket if Daba takes the corners too sharply, squawking and skidding across the back seat. Its rebuke makes Daba slow down, and for that, my clenched thighs are relieved.
The mountain air is tempered by thick pollution from passing army trucks. Soldiers wave happily at us as we stop for tea at a roadside cafe outside Gandarbal.
Kashmir is India’s northernmost state. It’s been on and off the tourist trail since Partition in 1945, when Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan split. The two countries continue to squabble over the rich land, a fight that was exacerbated by the deadly actions of Pakistani ‘mischief makers’, as one Delhi newspaper columnist charmingly described the 2008 Mumbai bombers.
Its jewels are the powder-blue, snow-capped Himalayan mountains, which are mirrored in the incomparably beautiful, eerily calm Dal Lake, on the outskirts of Kashmiri capital Srinagar. Canny Brits, when they weren’t running the empire, would retreat from the heat of Delhi and Bombay to a colony of houseboats on the lake, a cool 1730 metres above sea level.
A few days earlier I’d fled the clinging 40-degree oven of Delhi in April, and boarded a boat for a slice of fantasy.
Moghal Palace, Queen Elizabeth, Neil Armstrong and Helen of Troy (the names of the boats) sit shoulder to shoulder along the lake’s shores. Zipping between are shikaras – long, slim boats that sit perilously low in the water – delivering guests to their houseboats and providing a mobile shopping service.
My houseboat is a riot of hand-carved furniture, including a four-poster bed with Kashmir’s famed chain-stitch embroidery on the curtains, bedspreads and cushions. Each morning, a man paddles his boat to my moorings, waving his hand over boxes of lilies, red tulips, pansies and jasmine, all grown on the lake. In a few months, he’ll have lotuses, which spread across the water like a bejewelled Kashmiri weave.
The passenger shikaras have names as equally lustrous as the houseboats: New Love Heaven, Rose of Heaven, Darjeeling and my own Bob Marley, which is contracted to take me wherever I want to go, whenever I want to go. The little boats are moving lounges – luxuriously decked out with small covered loveseats plumped with pillows and curtains you can pull around yourself for added privacy. In morally correct India, it’s no wonder Kashmir is a famed honeymoon destination.
One morning, the houseboat’s gentle butler, Shabir, rugs me up against the cold and bundles me into Bob Marley. The boatman, a suntanned Daniel Day-Lewis look-alike, cruises the lakes’ ‘roads’, watery highways between the islands and beds of water lilies. The water is so clear I can see the lilies’ roots, and Kashmir’s mosques, floating shops, mountains and clouds are reproduced in the glossy water.
I hear voices from the little poplar-lined islands amid the lake, as children of the lotus farmers, boat builders, weavers and bee-keepers wave hello and call out. “Look! There’s a lady in that boat!”
After a few days on the houseboat, the temptation of those beautiful snowy mountain caps has proven too much, and I’ve chosen to swap opulence and indolence for altitude and exertion.
The road northwest from Srinagar to the hiking trailhead at a village called Naranagh is lined with fresh green poplars, fields of bright yellow mustard flowers, stringy marijuana and road signs.
For a region so torn apart by war, Kashmir is obsessed with safety. Reading Kashmiri road signs is like reading advice from Forrest Gump: ‘Life is a journey. Complete it.’ ‘Mountains are for pleasure. Only if you drive at leisure.’ ‘Don’t be rash, else you will crash.’ And my favourite, obviously targeting female Punjabi tourists: ‘Don’t gossip, let him drive.’
Base camp is two tents set up on a grassy plain by a rushing river, just outside Naranagh, around 2200 metres above sea level. We dump our gear and I check out my tent for the night: lots of blankets. Hot water bottle. Torch. Toilet paper.
Spitting distance from the disputed India–Pakistan ‘line of control’, peaceful Naranagh is dominated by the picturesque ruins of an old Hindu temple, on green grass nibbled to MCG smoothness by a battalion of trekking ponies. For its young Muslim inhabitants, it’s the perfect place for a game of cricket.
All Kashmiri boys play cricket and, it appears, all Kashmiri boys can bowl. After admiring their skill while the hardworking girls schlep past balancing towers of firewood and urns of water on their heads, we take a preparatory two-hour trek, the first of three day walks. The steep path climbs to a local beauty spot and lookout, following a river that, fed by the summer thaw, roars like Delhi at peak hour. It’s good to be in the clean air after the city smog. We see not one other soul the entire time.
That night, the scent of fragrant Kashmiri tea, spiced with cardamom, cinnamon and sugar, pervades the tent. The guys joke in a mix of Kashmiri and the local gypsy dialect. Bright constellations overhead chase each other down the north–south corridor that is this thin valley, the glacier-fed river grows stronger with every passing hour, and all is well in the world.
Unfortunately, there is more trekking and less pony than I’d hoped on this pony trek in the Kashmir valley. Not too early the next morning, after a small temper tantrum about sitting on an animal whose legs are only marginally longer than mine, I team up with Balah (his name means ‘white’ in Kashmiri), Moonti (aka ‘Pearl’), the ever-patient, ever-smoking Salim and the ponies’ owner Aktor to trek to the snowline on what is apparently classed as a mid-Himalayan hike.
We pass women who balance massive loads of firewood on their heads, and others busy collecting rare medicinal mushrooms that reap 10,000 rupees (about US$150) a kilo. “Come with us!” call the women, energetically pacing the track in scarves and flowing trousers.
The rough track is almost vertical at times. Snow and rain have pushed trees and rocks across the path, which Salim clears, a cigarette always drooping from his lip. Being mid-April, it’s too early in the season to do the celebrated ridge-top circuits that take about a week to complete. The peaks are still crowned with snow, which is rapidly melting into the rivers below.
So we climb to the snowline, where the purple wildflowers peter out and the old snow starts. In a couple of weeks, the pastures will be green and full of gypsies, their goats, sheep and ponies enjoying the summer grazing. We passed them on the way up here, slowly droving their animals along the roadsides from towns up to 600 kilometres away.
But for now, it’s just the three of us – and two work-shy ponies – enjoying the whoosh of the wind through the pine trees and feasting on a sumptuous picnic: boiled eggs, potatoes, carrots and macaroons. Salim tells tales of Himalayan black bears, snow leopards and brown trout in the rivers as we peer down the mountainside at the tiny village below, where we’ll return to tonight, before climbing the mountain’s skirts once again tomorrow.
After two nights at Naranagh, the mysterious disappearance of the white chicken and the appearance of a spectacular chicken curry, we drive back to Srinagar, past villages selling nothing but woven baskets, cricket bats or dried fruit. Little cafes advertise their wares: ‘Buttertoast’, ‘Maggi’, ‘Pakora’.
For my last night in Kashmir, I go back to the houseboat on Dal Lake. I’m the only one on the boat and Shabir, the butler, gives great mournful sighs as he brings my last supper of yet more curried chicken and mounds of awesome curried water spinach.
A jeweller from Ladakh has snared his prey and is breaking my budget, unwrapping bracelets of golden topaz, garnets, pearl, lapis lazuli and peridot. There are Kashmiri carpets to be admired, pashminas to be felt, saffron to smell and sweet, dried cashews and tart apricots to pack for tomorrow’s journey. For a lost land, Kashmir is the bringer of luxury.
The last word on Kashmir goes to Jehangir, the sixteenth-century Mughal emperor who started the Kashmir public relations machine. The story goes Jehangir was lying on his deathbed and, when asked what he wanted, uttered, “Kashmir, the rest is worthless.”
It could be a marketing ploy, it could be just a slogan, but he could well also be dead right.